Digital transformation of mines: insights from Vale

Major mining players are racing to embrace digitization in order to improve operational safety and efficiency. Usually, this process involves adding Internet of Things (IoT) and industrial IoT (IIoT) platforms to standard operational technology (OT). These two worlds encompass a massive array of technologies. For connectivity alone, mining firms can choose from standards such as Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) or low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) protocols such as LoRa (long-range). 

To see how mining operators are leveraging these technologies, IIoT leader Worldsensing hosted

with Brazilian mine leader Vale. We’ve covered the responses to some of the questions that were left unanswered at the end of the session in another post, but here we hand over to Luiz Barreto, operational technology architect at Vale, for the queries that required a mine operator’s perspective. 

At Vale, what type of applications did you use IoT solutions for? What business problems did you solve with IoT? Which LoRa technology did you use? Which IoT platform did you implement?

Luiz: At Vale we are using IIoT for situations that are not mission-critical and have big demands of devices, or wearable/battery efficient devices. We are implementing IIoT solutions for vibration monitoring, rollers and conveyor belts, environmental station, geotechnical instrumentation and location and proximity demands, among others. We don’t have a specific platform, instead, we have a mix of solutions that were defined in a roadmap. 

Whatever product fills some important gap and supports our architecture is a potential option for adoption.

When it comes to machine automation and remote management, do you prefer to use centralized gateways that will transmit the data back to the analysis and collection servers? Or you prefer to use standalone gateways for critical machinery?

Luiz: I relate ‘critical machinery’ with mission-critical situations. These cases are more like OT applications and should consider as critical every asset related to their control. Every piece of the system should be within close proximity, reachable at minimum latency, and have redundancy in all aspects. However, we can also send the collected data to a higher level (usually on an IT network or in the cloud) for machine learning applications to extract more information, to improve the processes and to relate the data with other sources. 

We have devices installed within close proximity to our critical machinery and these devices may also send data to a centralized solution that will allow more advanced analysis. In the case of IIoT, often we use a centralized architecture to do so, as the data analysis is made on a higher, centralized layer, and not in the field.

What is the main communication challenge for IoT in mining?

Luiz: Mining companies usually have operational sites far from public connectivity, so establishing private means of connectivity is a must. There’s no silver bullet in this area, and different connectivity options shall be implemented for the demands of each site. LoRaWAN for IIoT is a solution that works in a free band, ISM, and allows us to have our own private LoRa network in a simple architecture and at a low cost. Other options, such as LTE, 5G, Wi-Fi mesh, or dedicated link radios, are or will become available for different use cases.

Are communications on the move a requirement for Vale in mining plants? Is satellite a technology you’re considering to cover this need?

Luiz: Yes, we have solutions for push-to-talk radios, as well as location tracking, for instance. Some equipment that moves, such as autonomous drillers, patio machines and haul trucks, also need reliable private connectivity in the field. Satellite is used for remote locations where we don’t have any connectivity and latency is not an issue. We are also evaluating having satellites as second options for backhaul redundancy in specific situations.

What are your expectations in terms of autonomous hauling systems for the next five years?

Luiz: We already have autonomous haul trucks, drillers and patio machines. It brings big safety benefits as it takes the worker out of the operational area, as well as delivering better operational efficiency. Some other mining companies have already started this journey and we strongly believe it is something that is here to stay.

What do you think is the biggest benefit of long-range wireless for the mining industry?

Luiz: The benefits of LPWANs like LoRaWAN include low cost, better protection against vandalism at some sites (avoiding cabling theft, for instance), having a private network independent of public coverage, and centralized control and monitoring of all devices.

What will be the potential challenges for IT and OT demand in the next three to five years?

Luiz: We have a big challenge in change management, redefining standards for IT and OT. New demands will need to be well defined and sometimes sliced between IT and OT so that we can achieve optimal results.

At Vale, which security platforms do you use to protect the OT/IoT layer?

Luiz: At Vale, we don’t mix IIoT with OT. They should reside in different, isolated network zones, considering our “center of gravity” of security, with is OT.  Also, and we usually don’t send IIoT data to the Internet. All of our infrastructures are on-premises or reside in private clouds.